Climate Change in Physics Class?

I think the idea of discussing climate change within the Physics class is worth exploring. At first glance, this environmental issue seems to have nothing to do with Physics, but after a bit of research, physicists play a huge role in dealing with climate change. Also, climate change is a significant scientific issue and should be given weight regardless of the science. Organizations such as the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics ( have formed partnerships with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis ( to research the current state of the Earth’s environment. Kavli Institute (KITP) has been calculating wind velocity and soil moisture as well as studying oceanic circulations, cloud physics, and astronomy related to climate change. It is simple to connect environmental issues to physics class by sharing some data from research such as that of KITP. There are even conferences regarding the physics of climate change, such as one at the Nordita Institute for Theoretical Physicists ( in Sweden. A whole portion of the conference webpage details the role of the physicist in studying climate issues:

Scientists working in the area of climate research often have a background in physics and mathematics. This is perhaps more so in the US and some countries in Europe than in the Nordic countries. This course is aimed at overcoming the apparent Nordic gap between students in basic physics and climate research. The school is intended primarily for physics graduate students with an interest in broad applications of physics methods. Prior knowledge of climate research is not required, but skill in physics is. (

Other academic institutions, such as Washington State University have even initiated Environmental Physics baccalaureate programs ( where students are required to major in Physics and minor in Environmental Studies and Mathematics. Even high profile physicists such as David MacKay of Cambridge is getting involved in the discussion of climate change ( Other scientists at Brown University are developing a set of equations that will be most influential in studying climate change ( When there is so much happening in the professional world of Physics regarding climate change, the physics classroom should model that. In addition, it will allow physics students to see what types of jobs are available in the physics industry, and hopefully encourage them to pursue physics in college.

There are many scientific connections to climate change for Physics students. A clear one is the greenhouse effect. Students of physics learn about refraction, radiation, and heat, so why not connect their classroom knowledge to a hot topic? While greenhouse gases may not play as much of a role in climate change as originally predicted, it is worth teaching and discussing since it is a valid scientific phenomena. Articles such as “A Tutorial On The Basic Physics of Climate Change” ( can provide insight and resources to help students connect the two. I think the most effective ways of connecting climate change to physics content are by making the most of units including topics such as heat, energy, optics (ray diagrams), effects of rising temperatures, and technology advances (including ways to prevent and control climate change). Scientists are extremely influential in the development of better fuel economy, less e-waste, and cleaner forms of energy; students should be allowed to be involved and influential as well.

I posed the question of involving climate change in the physics classroom to Morgan Scott a member of the GOLD program at ConEdison, and received this reply:

The Physics Classroom is not the first unlikely area the issue of climate change and energy efficiency have become talking points.  Many utilities, including Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. (Con Edison), have made climate change a focus point of everyday operations.  Being responsible stewards of the environment has become a central approach to all aspects of the industry.  Encouraging energy efficiency, while beneficial to the environment, is also advantageous for the company as it reduces load on a complicated distribution system.  Discussion of a Cap & Trade system to reduce CO2 emissions and the investigation into renewable energy sources such as the proposed wind farm off of Long Island are just the beginning of a complete industry change.

Who is it that will help to develop these new technologies?  It is teachers within the classroom, within any science classroom be it physics, chemistry, or environmental studies, who must inform their students of the importance of climate change and the ways in which their study of science can have an affect.  Encouraging students to be aware is the first step in getting them involved.  Con Edison has seen this need to educate students to be conscious and attentive of these issues.  The Environmental Committee of the GOLD Leadership program, Con Edison’s 18 month post-graduate program of challenging supervisory and project-based jobs, is currently in the process of creating a curriculum which they plan to take into the classroom to begin educating students early about the causes and consequences of climate change.  It is certainly the hope of the group that it will not only challenge students to begin taking immediate steps, but to consider the continuation of science study with the ultimate goal of participating in a field that will work on climate change issues and renewable energies.  The utility industry will change greatly in the coming years, but it will take bright scientists to help it achieve the changes it needs to fight climate change.  The classroom, and especially the physics classroom, is an important starting point.

It is clear that climate change is important to researchers and professionals in the scientific and technology industries. If we are to inspire students to be science lovers, or at least to pay attention in class, we should give attention to the most important topics, as well as the most important content. In the case of climate change, physics content has many overlaps. By making climate change an active discussion in class, we are teaching good content as well as helping to develop a socially aware and active generation.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan Allen on November 17, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Actually climate change has everything to do with physics. The analysis begins with how light radiation reaches the earth from the sun and how that energy re-radiates back into space at a lower temperature. This introduces electromagnetic waves and the Planck Theory of heat radiation. We then have to introduce the “Greenhouse Effect” wherein gases that are transparent to the short wave incoming sunlight absorb the long wave earth radiation, and how increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases such as CO2 will increase the greenhouse effect and hence raise the temperature of the atmosphere.

    At this point we can bring in thermodynamics and how the atmosphere behaves like an engine whose work output is manifested as weather.

    So you see, physics has everything to do with climate change.


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